To Luther, the essential issue of Christianity was the question of the freedom or bondage of the human will, calling it the “hinge on which all turns.” By his own account, he hoped that his book The Bondage of the Will would survive, even if all his other writings perished. The book did survive, but unfortunately it is fairly difficult to read and digest. After muddling my way through it, I bought Gerhard Forde’s commentary on it, The Captivation of the Will - Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage. This was extremely helpful and a fair substitute for any who want to know the essence of the matter without having to endure Luther’s bombastic and sometimes tedious 16th century polemics.
For an even quicker summary of the matter, what follows is an excerpt from J.I. Packer’s introduction to his translation of Luther’s The Bondage of the Will:
“What is the modern reader to make of The Bondage of the Will? That it is a brilliant and exhilarating performance, a masterpiece of the controversialist’s difficult art, he will no doubt readily admit; but now comes the question, is Luther’s case any part of God’s truth? and, if so, has it a message for Christians today? No doubt the reader will find the way by which Luther leads him to be a strange new road, an approach which in all probability he has never considered, a line of thought which he would normally label ‘Calvinistic’ and hastily pass by. This is what Lutheran orthodoxy itself has done; and the present-day Evangelical Christian (who has semi-Pelagianism in his blood) will be inclined to do the same. But both history and Scripture, if allowed to speak, counsel otherwise.
Historically, it is a simple matter of fact that Martin Luther and John Calvin, and, for that matter, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation, stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points, they had their differences; but in asserting the helplessness of man in sin, and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them, these doctrines were the very life-blood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s great work underscores this fact: ‘Whoever puts this book down without having realized that evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain.’
The doctrine of free justification by faith only, which became the storm-center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is hardly accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed with varying degrees of adequacy by Augustine, and Gottschalk, and Bradwardine, and Wycliffe, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only. The doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace; but it actually expressed for them only one aspect of this principle, and that not its deepest aspect. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a profounder level still, in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration - the doctrine, that is, that the faith which receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God, bestowed by spriritual regeneration in the act of effectual calling.
To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ’s sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith. Here was the crucial issue: whether God is the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith; whether, in the last analysis, Christianity is a religion of utter reliance on God for salvation and all things necessary to it, or of self-reliance and self-effort.”
- J.I. Packer, Introduction to his translation of The Bondage of the Will (1957) p. 57-59.
One sentence in this excerpt struck me as particularly provocative. That was the comment that suggested that orthodox Lutheranism has abandoned Luther on this crucial issue. In the same sentence he indicated that the modern evangelical ("who has semi-pelagianism in his blood") has done the same. In other words, he is saying that the Reformation failed.
I found this same assessment of the "unpopularity" of Luther in the forward to Forde's book on the bondage of the will, written by Steven Paulson. Paulson writes:
"There are not many who have been willing to follow Luther as he is 'forced to confess' the captivation of the will. There are even fewer who will confess with him just who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing with sinners. Just so, there are not many who have been willing to embrace what this implies for preaching. Yet what a vast difference it makes for a preacher to stand before a congregation and assume their wills are bound rather than stand before a group and assume their wills are merely in need of motivation."
- Steven Paulson, Forward to The Captivation of the Will, by Gerhard Forde, 2005. p xi
I am inclined to agree with all this. The Reformation has seemd to have failed. It is obvious that Pelagianism and its many flavors is winning the day in evangelical Christianity and has certainly infected Lutheranism in many ways. So if I stand on Luther's side of the hinge (which I do), and the hinge is truly the crux of the matter (as I believe it is), then I need to get used to being in a very tiny minority.
On the other hand, I am less inclined to divide Christianity by this hinge and exert a lot of energy lamenting the lost Luther. I think we all have semi-pelagianism in our blood. It is part and parcel of the original sin and therefore ought not surprise us when it rises up and tries to dominate. I don't mean to minimize the matter by saying this. Original sin is clearly a serious problem. So serious that only God could handle it, as Luther's theology attests. But rather than seeing Christianity as divided by this hinge, it might be more useful to see the individual Christian divided - including myself. The hinge divides the old and the new me. The old me will always be Pelagian and convinced of my own freedom to accept or reject God, obey or disobey, trust or not trust, believe or not believe. The old me is dead but doesn't know it. So it fights for its own survival. The new me, created by the Gospel, will always know that it was God who gave me birth, God who will preserve me, and God who will enable whatever is required of me. The old me will not be convinced or converted with reason or Scripture. The old me must be killed by the Gospel.